A collection of reviews of films from off the beaten path; a travel guide for those who love the cinematic world and want more than the mainstream releases.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
The Metrograph explores the history of Gothic
30+ Films Tracing the Evolution of Gothic to Goth Culture on Screen from Nosferatu and Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages to The Craft and Lost Highway
A long, twisting road touched by fingers of cold fog connects 18th and 19th century Gothic fiction to the goth subcultures of the 80s and 90s. This rich literary genre is matched by an equally fascinating cinematic legacy, borrowing from the morbid imaginations of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Brontë, Bram Stoker and, yes, Stephenie Meyer, and beset with images of crumbling castle keeps, blood-thirsty vampires, and black-clad mistresses of the dark. It is a legacy that spans from German Expressionism to Golden Age Hollywood to Hammer Films to the morose creations of young American filmmakers inspired by the burgeoning goth/ industrial/ death rock music scene in the 1980s. First used as a derogatory term to describe the excesses of a 12th-century architectural style, the term "Gothic" was reclaimed by Romantic revivalists who gloried in excess, as Gothic cinema and the goth subculture would later be defined in small part by their over-the-top, baroque qualities and a touch of willful kitsch, seen here in films by figures as diverse as James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935), Paul Morrissey (Blood for Dracula, 1974), and Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, 1995). “Goth(ic)," beginning December 1, brings together a mob of melancholy monsters, hexed aristocrats, Udo Kier as Dracula, the unparalleled '90s ensembles of The Craft (1996), and more! Velvet choker optional, but recommended.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen/1922/1968/91 mins/DCP) Mad Dane Christensen stirred up this heady brew of a film, an “expose” on the hidden history of the occult that combines re-enactments, animations, and a bevy of Boschian imagery to make what might be the proto-cult movie. Shown here in the condensed 1968 version narrated by Beat icon William S. Burroughs in his unmistakable Midwestern drawl and featuring a hectic, hallucinatory jazz soundtrack by a combo featuring Jean-Luc Ponty.
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau/1922/81 mins/DCP) The O.G. bloodsucker, in many ways Murnau’s unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stroker’s Dracula is still unrivalled in the sense of disgust and creeping dread it sustains. Max Schreck’s spindle-fingered vampire Count Orlok is a verminous nightmare, the uncanny horror of his presence augmented through the use of fast-motion and reverse negative photography and ingenious shadowplay with a life of its own.
Dracula (Tod Browning/1931/85 mins/35mm) “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” All of modern vampiredom issued out from under the cloak of Bela Lugosi’s suave, seductive Transylvanian Count, his every carefully-enunciated line reading the stuff of legend. Working with Freaks director Browning and German Expressionist veteran cinematographer Karl Freund, Lugosi helped kick off the Universal horror cycle of the 1930s, creating the definitive screen interpretation of Dracula along the way.
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale/1935/75 mins/35mm) Long before Susan Sontag codified “camp,” Whale mastered it in this sequel to his Universal hit, which brought back Boris Karloff’s monster and Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein, then added Ernest Thesiger as the imperiously, impossibly fey Doctor Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester in a double role as both the bouffanted bride and, in an opening which imagines the first imagining of the monster, as Mary Shelley.
Wuthering Heights (William Wyler/1939/104 mins/35mm) Emily Brontë’s 1847 tale of the doomed romance between surly Yorkshire gypsy-cum-gentryman Heathcliff and Catherine, the love of his childhood years, has been filmed many times, though never so beautifully as in this richly atmospheric Wyler production that goes only as far as Chapter 17 in Brontë’s book, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the lead roles, with a pre-Citizen Kane Gregg Toland successfully evoking the fog-wreathed English moors in southern California.
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock/1940/130 mins/35mm) “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again…” Hitchcock never won Best Director outright, and he was still a newly-arrived UK import when this gothic thriller, starring Joan Fontaine as a nameless young woman who becomes enamored with a saturnine, aristocratic widower (Oliver, fresh from Wuthering Heights), took Outstanding Production (later “Best Picture”) honors. A marvel of directorial assurance, which turns the screws with assurance and panache.
House of Usher (Roger Corman/1960/79 mins/35mm) The first of Corman’s eight-film cycle of deliriously stylish, extravagantly colorful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations has the director’s go-to star Vincent Price as Roderick Usher, accursed owner a mansion hemmed in by a blasted black swamp and his conviction of being under a hereditary curse. Shown with Jean Epstein’s own Usher, a mélange of themes from several Poe tales, and an influential lodestone of the surrealist cinema.
The Innocents (Jack Clayton/1961/100 mins/DCP) The deep focus black-and-white CinemaScope photography of Freddie Francis establishes the feeling of a terrible, lucid dream in Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’s celebrated psychological horror tale “The Turn of the Screw,” starring Deborah Kerr as a governess who finds herself harassed by supernatural visions while minding two young children in a remote manse. One of the most frightening haunted house stories ever made, and an influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween, among countless other films.
The Haunting(Robert Wise/1963/112 mins/35mm) The “Old Dark House” setting, a staple of Gothic fiction, was given a new lease on life in this harrowing cinematic dark ride by former Val Lewton director Wise, an ingenious work of devilish, leering camera trickery in which an ensemble cast including Julie Harris and Russ Tamblyn are assembled for a stay at a mansion which appears to house a very unquiet poltergeist.
The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher/1968/95 mins/DCP) Through the sunny counterculture Utopianism of the 1960s, England’s Hammer Film Productions remained lurking in the shadows. The Devil Rides Out shows Hammer at the height of its powers, reuniting a steely, imperious Christopher Lee and maestro Fisher, working from Richard Matheson’s superb adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel. Investigating a satanic plot leads Lee’s Duc de Richleau, on the side of good for once, into a black magick circle led by Charles Gray, and face-to-face with occult horrors.
The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman/1964/82 mins/35mm) Price is back front-and-center for the finale of Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, here playing another isolated 19th century nobleman brooding amidst lavish period décor—this time he’s condemned by vision problems to wear tinted glasses, and haunted by the spirit of his deceased first wife, which lives on in the persecutorial presence of a malignant black cat. With a script by future Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne, channeling the poetry of Poe. Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (Jack Hill/1967/81 mins/35mm) There’s more than a touch of southern-fried Gothic in this unclassifiable drive-in number by Hill, who finds an unsettling balance of farce and tragedy while reworking the classic “hereditary curse” tropes. Chauffeur Lon Chaney, Jr. attempts to cover up the cannibalistic indiscretions of his charges, the Merrye family, as distant relations try to sell their house out from under them. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski/1968/137 mins/35mm) Satanists are on the loose in Central Park West in Polanski’s slow-burn thriller, which gives new meaning to the phrase “pregnancy scare.” Young couple Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes make friendly with elder neighbor couple Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, but when isolated and expecting her first child, Farrow’s harried Rosemary starts to wonder why everyone is so eager for her to get a daily dosage of tannis root. Blood for Dracula (Paul Morrissey/1974/106 mins/35mm) Cult actor Udo Kier straps on the fangs for Warhol Factory house director Paul Morrissey, playing a sickly, dying Dracula in search of virgin blood in the 1920s Italian countryside who thinks he’s found salvation when he arrives at the family seat of the Marchese de Fiore (Vittorio De Sica), home to the nobleman, his three beautiful, blooming daughters, and—to his great misfortune—the meddling, Marxist caretaker (Joe Dallesandro). Fascination (Jean Rollin/1979/80 mins/DCP) A genre unto himself, the Frenchman Rollin was a one-man industry turning out supernaturally-tinged, erotically-charged films connected to the legacy of 1920s surrealism, movies that had the feeling of sad fairy tales. Fascination is one of his best and best-loved, a hypnotic, dream logic-driven period piece set in motion when a thief takes refuge in a château presided over by beautiful Brigitte Lahaie and Franca Maï, a film that begins with abattoir home remedies and leads to swinging aristocrats and swinging scythes.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog/1979/107 mins/35mm) Herzog brashly took up the mantle of German Expressionism in revisiting the unhallowed soil of Murnau’s masterpiece, with old foe and collaborator Klaus Kinski as the pestilent Count and Isabelle Adjani as the owner of the pale, slender neck that he so dearly desires to drink of. Working for the first time with international financing, Herzog was able to unleash horror on a truly epic scale, with both Mexican mummies and an ocean of rats playing in his symphony of terror.
Possession (Andrzej Żuławski/1981/124 mins/35mm) Easily the most harrowing divorce drama ever made, Żuławski’s one-of-a-kind genre pastiche has spy Sam Neill returning to his Berlin home from a mission abroad to discover that wife Isabelle Adjani wants suddenly to split up. Launching an investigation into the reasons for her ever-more-alarming behavior, he discovers a truth more sinister—and nauseating—than his wildest suspicions, as Zulawski’s highly-choreographed cinematic delirium and Andrzej Korzyński’s pulsating score push things light years past over the top.
The Hunger (Tony Scott/1983/97 mins/35mm) A lush vampire romance with sex and style to spare, much of it provided by stars Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, a couple of posh, centuries-old nightclubbing New York bloodsuckers who, when one begins to show the first signs of aging, recruit assistance from Susan Sarandon’s geriatrics researcher, then find themselves in a very, very attractive throuple. Yes, that’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” artists Bauhaus in a brief cameo.
Vampire Hunter D (Toyoo Ashida/1985/80 mins/DCP) Call it goth futurism: In the year 12,090 AD, the decimated remains of humanity live on as chattel for the ruling vampire class. Some, though, have chosen to fight back—like Doris Lang, who, rather than become the bride of Count Magnus Lee, employs the services of the eponymous D. Chic and ultraviolent, with an iconic look supplied by Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano.
Gothic (Ken Russell/1986/87 mins/35mm) Russell goes back to ground zero of gothic horror, to the dark and stormy night at Lord Byron’s Lake Geneva villa in 1816—also depicted in Bride of Frankenstein—that led to Mary Shelley writingFrankenstein and Dr. John William Polidori writing The Vampyre. With Natasha Richardson (in her film debut) and Julian Sands as the Shelleys, Gabriel Byrne as Byron, Timothy Spall as repressed homosexual Polidori, and a parade of mind-bending hallucinatory visuals set to Thomas Dolby’s synth score.
The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher/1987/97 mins/35mm) A paragon of high 80s style and Schumacher’s finest hour, The Lost Boys transfers the vampire legend to sunny beachfront Santa Carla, California, where brothers Corey Haim and Jason Patric run afoul of a vampire gang run by Kiefer Sutherland. (As in Near Dark, the trouble starts with a teenage crush.) Imminently quotable (“Death by stereo!”) with hooks to match courtesy a doomy pop soundtrack anchored by Gerard McMahon’s “Cry Little Sister.”
Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow/1987/94 mins/35mm) Southern farm boy Adrian Pasdar takes a fancy to pallid stranger Jenny Wright, but later has occasion to regret it when he meets her “family”—a gang of hungry, pistol-packing vampires terrorizing the southwestern countryside in a roving RV, their number including Lance Henriksen and the lamented Bill Paxton. An brilliant breakout by Bigelow, who combines ravishing romanticism, pitch-black comedy, and repurposed western iconography.
Beetlejuice (Tim Burton/1988/92 mins/35mm) With her delivery of the line “My whole life is a dark room… One. Big. Dark. Room,” Winona Ryder cemented herself as a goth girl heroine for the ages, a brooding teen in widow’s weeds relocated by her parents to a creaky manse that happens to be haunted by the unquiet spirits of owners Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, egged on in mischief-making by Michael Keaton’s Ghost with the Most, whose own hidden motives are rather more malevolent.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola/1992/128 mins/35mm) Coppola at his most deliriously baroque, Gary Oldman wearing cinema’s most iconic updo, a puppyish young Keanu Reeves trying to make his way back to Winona Ryder, and Anthony Hopkins as vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing—it’s all here in this opulent production which returns to the original Stoker text and draws out all of the piercing sexual ache and romantic longing.
Cemetery Man (Michele Soavi/1994/105 mina/35mm) A late flowering of Italian genre cinema to rival anything from the Golden Age of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Soave’s adaptation of the popular comic series Dylan Dog starring lantern-jawed Rupert Everett as the minder of the Buffalora cemetery, where the newly dead require diligent re-killing. Brings an absurdist sense of humor, fatalist romanticism, and dynamic camera sense to the zombie movie, with a beguiling ending that’ll have you saying “Gnah?”
The Crow (Alex Proyas/1994/102 mins/35mm) Both a star-making vehicle and a memorial to its late star, Brandon Lee, Proyas’s Detroit-set story of the titular undead superhero’s one-man war against the criminal underworld is acutely attuned to the grimy glamor of post-industrial rot, with Lee’s commanding leading man turned backed by a grunge/ industrial/ shoegaze soundtrack that’s a classic in its own right. Based on James O’Barr’s independent comic.
Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan/1994/123 mins/35mm) Years in the making, this Grand Guignol adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel of the same name was deliciously overripe by the time that it finally hit screens courtesy of Crying Game director Jordan, who gives the necessary pomp and swirl to the story of the centuries-long tutelage between vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) and his newly-turned charge, Louis (Brad Pitt), from 18th century Louisiana to the present day.
The Doom Generation (Gregg Araki/1995/83 mins/35mm) In what he cheekily dubbed his “Heterosexual Film,” Araki follows a trio of gorgeous, disaffected youths with primary color-coded names (James Duval, Rose McGowan, Johnathon Schaech) across an all-American hellscape rendered in assaultive artificial colors, their flight a channel-surf through bizarre celebrity cameos, preceded by a run-in with a pack of homophobes portrayed by band Skinny Puppy.
The Craft (Andrew Fleming/1996/101 mins/35mm) A stone-cold sleepover classic, The Craft has Robin Tunney’s new arrival at a Los Angeles high school discovering her telekinetic abilities and subsequently attracting the attention of a nascent coven of witches made up of Neve Campbell, Rachel True, and Fairuza Balk. It’s all fun and games at first, but the violent emotions accompanying of teenaged friendships and grudges become dangerous when sorcery is involved.
Lost Highway (David Lynch/1997/134 mins/35mm) Lynch has always been a filmmaker unusually attuned to pop music, and at the time of Lost Highway he was deep into goth-metal crunch. The film is a noir-inflected, shape-shifting southern California deathtrip, features several slabs of Rammstein, a Marilyn Manson cameo, and a soundtrack compiled by Trent Reznor, then very far from Academy Award-winning respectability.
Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke/2008/122 mins/DCP) The Young Adult source material wasn’t promising, but thanks to director Hardwicke’s deep understanding of and love for teenage self-dramatizing, the lushly melancholy atmosphere of the Washington State setting, and the enormous charisma of very young leads Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart, Twilight came out a modern pop classic, introducing the pleasures of pale posturing angst to a whole new generation.